Meet College of Sciences Alumna Namrata Kolla, exploring the intersection of science and policy

Advice to students: Always have the big picture in mind

Namrata Kolla graduated in 2016 with two degrees: B.S. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences from the College of Sciences and B.S. in Public Policy from the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. She has been a project coordinator at the Office of the President in The Nature Conservancy, in Washington, D.C. She attended Alpharetta High School, in Alpharetta, Georgia.

What attracted you to study in Georgia Tech? What is the most important thing you learned while at Georgia Tech?

The two out-of-state schools I wanted to attend were too expensive, so the University of Georgia became my only other option. I chose Georgia Tech because it had a stronger reputation in STEM fields, and I was interested in Earth Sciences. Tech’s awesomely nerdy campus culture also fit my personality better. 

Georgia Tech pushed me to try my hardest. I learned skills (for example, coding and statistical analyses) that I wouldn’t have tried had I not been “forced” to in my classes. The opportunities to collaborate with administration and faculty also exceeded my expectations, and I never would have guessed that I would be so involved outside of academics. 

I learned how to better balance work and life. When I worked on something I was passionate about, it was easy to be motivated. At the same time, I had to fight the urge to get carried away by the pressure of grades and deadlines. No matter how many midterms I would have the next week, life was always better when I spent quality time with friends.

Ultimately, Georgia Tech is training you to help people—so spend time on relationships! 

What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?

Homecoming during my freshman year is one of my favorite memories. I was on my residence hall’s Powderpuff football team—we won second place that year. I loved the energy, and the experience was the reason I continued to coach powderpuff football for the next three homecomings as a Peer Leader.

How did you get to your current position?

 I had volunteered for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) prior to enrolling in Tech. After getting a Georgia Tech degree and seeing the different ways that the environment intersects with business, technology, and policy, I decided to pursue a career at TNC’s headquarters.

I work for the Chief of Staff in the Office of the President/CEO on various projects, from event planning to researching candidates for next year’s Board of Directors. Working hard, meeting deadlines, and managing feedback have come easily for me because of every class I took at Tech. My organizational and team skills came from extracurricular activities like leading the Sustainability Committee for the Student Government Association.

Dr. Dana Hartley had the most influence on me. Seeing how she manages being an Earth Sciences professor, undergraduate advisor, mentor for first-generation college students, AND advocate for students with financial and food insecurity is absolutely inspiring. She taught me that life is not about getting the grades or salary; it’s about using your energy and intelligence to do good for the world.

What do you like most about your current job? The least?

I enjoy the variety in my work, such as filling in for the assistant managing editor of Nature Conservancy magazine the past two months. On one project, I used my knowledge about carbon dioxide emissions to help create a climate-change infographic for a major feature issue. I also helped plan the organization’s 400-person summit in Washington, D.C., which enabled me to meet amazing leaders like Steve Denning, who sits on TNC’s Board of Directors and founded Georgia Tech’s Steven A. Denning Technology & Management program.

However, I am not using my science knowledge as much as I would like to. Though I write about environmental issues, I am rarely asked to delve deeper than the broad concepts. It may be different in a smaller chapter office, where I would be closer to the field work, converting science and real data into action and policy change.

What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?

Standing up for myself has been difficult. I am still overcoming this challenge, and the only thing that has been helping is practice. 

What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?

Seeing my name published in Nature Conservancy magazine. In my world, I try to change culture, behaviors, and policy, so it is tough to measure success in the short-term. Holding the finished magazine was a rare moment when the impact of my work was tangible and clear.

If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?

I would be a college zoology professor. My love for animals got me interested in environmental science. In another world, I would go to the African savanna and study the behavior and psychology of big cats and wild dogs.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech? 

Teachers are not walls, and the material is not insurmountable. You will learn faster and better by building relationships with your professors and making deliberate investments to improve your time management skills.

But most importantly, always have the big picture in mind: College is just a sliver of time in a life of learning. So be okay with turning in imperfect work so you can hang out with friends and take care of your mental health. Revisit that dream you had as a kid whenever you feel down. Individual test grades and your GPA mean little as soon as you get your first job. There is no reason to let anything academic knock you down for too long.

What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?

I am a huge “Game of Thrones” fan: I have read each book several times; have been to several live premieres of the TV show; and own a Westeros encyclopedia, mug, hat, poster, and board game. I recently saw a Vox.com video suggesting that the villainous “white walkers” personify climate change. Now I don’t think my obsession will ever stop.

If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?

Charles Darwin. He did what most people think about and never do: leave everyone, get on a boat, and travel the world. Darwin was also courageous in publishing his findings. The theories he developed were dangerous paradigm shifts that threatened prevailing religious beliefs. I would love to ask him how he decided to share his findings with the world anyway.

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